Mutaz Essa Barshim leads Mena track and field medal hopes at Tokyo Olympics

Qatari high jumper and Moroccan steeplechaser Soufianne Bakkali among the regional medal hopes

As the Olympic Games passes its halfway mark, the spotlight starts to turn towards the Tokyo Olympic Stadium where the athletics gets underway from Friday.

There will be some familiar faces looking to add to their medals collections, as well as new opportunities for up-and-coming athletes aiming to follow in the footsteps of recent Olympic heroes such as Usain Bolt and Mo Farah.

The Mena region will be well represented on the track and in the field over the next week, with some genuine medal hopes. Here are a few of the regional athletes to keep an eye on at the Olympic Stadium.

Mutaz Essa Barshim (Qatar) – men’s high jump

The two time Olympian is looking to add gold to his collection of bronze and silver from London 2012 and Rio 2016 repsectively. Having picked up the world championship titles in 2017 and 2019, Barshim has every reason to believe that he can go one step further than in Rio. Regarded as one of the greatest high jumpers in history, Barshim holds the Qatari national and Asian outdoor records (2.43m).

It is unlikely to be straightforward for the 30-year-old. In what has been a turbulent year, there are a handful of younger jumpers who have surpassed his season best of 2.30m. Look out for Russia’s Ilya Ivanyuk and Maksim Nedasekau from Belarus.

Soufiane El Bakkali (Morocco) – men’s steeplechase

Kenya has long dominated the men’s steeplechase, winning each gold medal in every Games the East African nation has competed in since 1968. However, without a reigning world champion or Olympic champion in their team, this could well be the first time in a long time the title could move to pastures new.

Step up Soufiane El Bakkali from Morocco. The world No 2 won bronze in Rio at the age of 20. Since then he claimed a silver and bronze in the 2017 and 2019 world championships respectively and ran a 7:58.15 career best in Monaco in 2018. He is in fine form this year too: with limited competitions he won the event at the Diamond League in Florence just last month.

It is by no means a given. He will be battling it out with the fastest steeplechaser this year as Ethiopian Lamecha Girma also looks to get his hands on the title. That being said, the Kenyan team remain an ever present threat.

Lonah Chemtai Salpeter (Israel) – Marathon

There are few back stories as sensational as that of Lonah Chemtai Salpeter. Since starting out finding time to squeeze in runs around her busy schedule as a nanny at the age of 20, Salpeter has had to fight every step of the way to be able to run for her naturalised home.

Years-long battles for citizenship in Israel, combined with illness and hard luck, seem to have done little to stop the Kenyan-born runner from becoming one of the country’s foremost sportswoman. Salpeter holds the national records for 1,500 metres, 3,000m, 5,000m and 10,000m, the half marathon and marathon.

The world No 2 marathoner is looking to make history, bringing home Israel's first medal from the Olympics in any track and field event. She will have a battle on her hands against the highly decorated and experienced Kenyans Ruth Chepngetich and Brigid Kosgei.

Bronze medallist Qatar's Abderrahman Samba poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men's 400m Hurdles at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on October 1, 2019. (Photo by MUSTAFA ABUMUNES / AFP)

Other big names

Look out for Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba, the world No 4 in the men’s 400m hurdles, when he takes on Norway’s Karsten Warholm - the world record holder and two-time world champion.

Since her impressive 12th-placed finish at Rio in 2016, Rahabe Arafi has gone from strength to strength in the women’s 1,500m. The Moroccan won the Diamond league in 2019 and this year managed a solid runner-up finish in grim conditions behind Britain’s Laura Muir in Gateshead.

Iran’s 2012 silver-medalist discus thrower, Ehsan Hadadi, will be making his fourth appearance at the Olympics. Having struggled with injury recently, it will take something special for him to make the podium spot.

Updated: July 29th 2021, 6:53 PM
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